Update 2018 – I don’t hate New Jersey anymore. Actually I haven’t hated it in a long time, and the accent has grown on me too. I was grumpy the day I wrote this post, fighting with my boyfriend or something (but I still think most Springsteen songs sound like a truck commercial)
I’m in a very negative and honest mood today. The truth is – I hate NJ. I have been living here for the last 10 years. When I came here, I thought it was New England. I had lived in Boston for 3 years and liked it there. but I quickly learned that this is not Boston.
Why do I detest NJ?
Weather. It’s either freezing, like this winter which has been endless, or in the summer it’s a sticky swamp. There are a few pretty seasons in between, and the leaves do get pretty in the fall, but it never lasts long enough.
People – Sorry. I hate you guys! People here have the worst accents. It’s nasal and harsh. I hope never to get one. Men and women around my age segregate themselves, according to ancient Turkish law or something. The women sit around and talk about cooking. Men talk about sports. Young men talk about trucks or games. Bruce Springsteen is a safe musical conversation choice for everyone. NJ people are just rednecks who do not live in the country.
The problem with the people of NJ is that they think these are great topics.
What do I want to talk about? How about video art? How about the books of Milan Kundera, or the music of Joy Division, or Radiohead, or Amanda Palmer? How about old buildings? How about the movies of David Lynch?
At least in other places that were dirty and industrial, such as the Soviet Union, or North of England, or Detroit, people hated it there and that led to interesting movements in art or something. Here in NJ people mostly just live with it and go to the mall, or Florida, so nothing interesting comes of it and nothing changes.
Potholes – The NJ Department of Transportation estimated 300,000 potholes that need to be repaired after the endless winter of 2014-2015. They are still there, and they are ruining my car.
Surroundings – There is nothing worse than NJ in the winter. Did I mention winter? First of all, NJ has bad planning. Anyone can just build anything anywhere. So they put businesses in houses and houses in businesses. Then there are power lines snaking in and out of everything. Then most of Central NJ is paved over and full of traffic, oil and litter that people throw from their cars. The combination of disentegrating houses, torn up sidewalks, dirty snow and litter all over the place makes winter into a fossil fuel mess, so I usually just stay indoors.
I wish I could give this a happy ending or at least make it a learning experience. The only thing i would say is – what if I liked everything all the time, and everything was happy, all the time. Yeah, that would be hell, too.
I grew up in Los Angeles, but have been away for almost 20 years now. I left around 1995. When east coast friends describe the city, their descriptions couldn’t seem more different from the L.A. I know and remember. I could never put my finger on why, until now.
When East Coast people describe L.A., they talk about a place that is bright and sunny. The air is warm and beachy, and there are surfers and mellow people everywhere! I can understand why that would be the appeal today, on a January morning in New Jersey as I look out my window at the snow and grey skies, or if I get out on the road with all the uptight drivers, trying to run errands in a few hours without sliding off the icy shoulder of the road or losing our tires to potholes.
But when I was growing up in L.A., I had to find my own dream, and it was not the sunny beaches and bright colors that people from the East Coast remember.
Of course you know before even reading this what I was like, right? I was that freaky girl with black clothes and black hair. Well, actually I usually had a shock of bleached white hair, or magenta. Long bangs covering my face, and a The Cure blasting out of my walkman or “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”. That was me!
But it got even better than that. I was more than your average garden variety death rock chick, and this can only be understood by the fact that I grew up in Los Angeles during the 80’s. While everyone else was aerobicizing, driving convertibles, and being happy, I was looking for a darker setting. I wanted to ride subways like Berlin street kids in “Christian F”, I wanted to walk up dark stairways to old apartment buildings where people did socially unacceptable things. I wanted a seedy city, and I cultivated that everywhere I could while surrounded by blonde people in pastel clothing eating Penguin’s Frozen Yogurt (well ok I admit I liked Penguin’s too, a little).
I was not only into goth music and dark clothes, but i wanted to find the real dark L.A., the noir city. I had never even seen a Raymond Chandler or a David Lynch film. I just had an idea that there was an old, gothic city beyond all of the happy bright beaches, and I was intent on finding it.
Luckily, I grew up in Long Beach, a working class beach town with an industrial harbor. It wasn’t preppy like yacht-rock Newport Beach. It was an old downtown with crumbling buildings and bars and tattoo parlors where sailors used to hang out. This made it interesting. I loved to walk around downtown Long Beach with my best friend Raina. We explored, smoking clove cigarettes and searching the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store for the perfect 50’s cocktail dress, psychedelic pants, or goth rosary to wear around our necks when we went to Disneyland. We would go to Zed Records and buy punk buttons or the occasional record (but mostly just buttons as we were more into fashion when it came down to it).
Even the bus ride to Raina’s house was fascinating in the mid 80’s. There was a mysterious bar called “The Bistro” on 7th street. It was all boarded up. Boarded-up buildings have always beckoned me. I have been known to take detours with my kids onto streets where I know there are rows of condemned houses. “WTF, mom?” complains my son, who is sure I am wasting his time. When I peeked into the windows of The Bistro, there were manneqins, which made it even more perfect, a Twilight Zone fantasy. (This turned out to be Faye’s Bistro, which made a huge comeback in the 90’s with their cheap pitchers and pool tables for 20-ish grunge crowd. I spent many a drunken night there, but that’s another post).
As I got older Long Beach became too small. As Orange County seemed to have no places dark and shadowy enough to feed my sick fantasies for bad vibrations, my attentions turned to Hollywood. Hollywood was my sleazy city, a glam fantasy, a dream come true. Every weekend my friends and I drove around Hollywood listening to David Bowie and Japan’s Adolescnt Sex (a great, underrated album if you like 70’s glam), drinking and trying to get into clubs like the Glam Slam on Sunset Blvd where pale guys with long black hair listened to the Cult or T-Rex. Hip stores on Melrose were much cooler then, when everyone had pointy boots and a cigarette, spiked hair and a lounge lizard style. And all the better if we got to an underground club in downtown L.A., such as the Fetish or the Scream. Downtown was the ultimate long-forgotten city, all warehouses and underground clubs in those warehouses.* It was abandoned and blank, and could be New York or Tokyo or Berlin, depending on where you wound up. Looking back at it now, with the distance of 20 years, the bright pavement and lack of trees just reminds me of Repo Man.
Any old building appealed to me. In college I lived above a Jewish deli on Pico Blvd. What was I looking for? I don’t know, probably a Ragtime feeling of New York streets with people selling fruit and immigrants and cobblestones and opium dens and drug addicts in every dark alley. What I got was probably the least appropriate residence in L.A. when the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994 and chunks of plaster fell on my head and the bricks separated. Clearly, brick buildings were not intended for LA. I’m probably only alive thanks to my landlady’s wise choice to retrofit the building with steel pipes before I moved in.
Once, after a night of clubbing, I got the chance to make my own personal “escape” up a hidden staircase late one night, a la a Raymond Chandler film. The entire story is strictly confidential but involves breaking into the kitchen of the club and consuming large amounts of cheap red wine. Eventually, even I got enough of darkness, started bicycling, quit smoking, and even hung out in daylight hours occasionally or gasp! at the beach in sunglasses, hippie skirts and Birkenstocks.
Years later, in Boston, I was talking with an English friend who summed it up perfectly. “It was always dark and grey in England. I loved the Beach Boys and dreamed of being a surfer out in California.” he said. “Wow,” I said, “I grew up in L.A. and was always trying to stay out of the sun. I lived for the grey days that reminded me of England and chances to go to San Francisco and wear coats or ride the subway”. To this day I always try to take the subway in New York – it’s still a thrill!
East coast people look at L.A. like they look at Florida, a place to enjoy the sun, wear a bathing suit, go hiking or to the beach. And that’s fine. I understand and I even like the sun too, like, once a year. But for me the best part of L.A. will always be its sense of mystery, that noir feeling between the hazy sunshine and and palm trees and bright pavement when you spot that weird little apartment over the storefront, where the drug addicts lived and you wonder who else has lived there over time.
*On a side note, downtown L.A. has had many bizarre restaurants. As a teen my mom took me to Gorky’s, where art students hung out and ate knish’s, and I thought was so New York. Whenever I am in L.A. now I try to make a special trip to Philippe’s, a 100 year old vintage restaurant which serves “french dip” sandwiches. It looks like the 40s at Philippe’s with Venetian blinds, long benches, sawdust floors and cheap coffee with apple pie for dessert. It is the ultimate noir diner. You can sit in small individual rooms where I like to think Philip Marlowe sat alone pensively plotting his case as the late afternoon L.A. sunlight streamed in through the slats in the blinds.
I recently took this picture on a drive from Milford, PA to Edison, NJ along Rte 206.
This is one of the things that fascinates me so much about American cities, those little towns that only have one or two small buildings, or even a little tiny downtown.
A one-building town provokes all sorts of questions –
When was it built? What made them create a high rise? What made them stop? Why did they not become NYC? Did the economy turn bad? Or was one high-rise all they ever wanted, just to add some apartments for the people who wanted to feel like they were making progress?
There is something lonely and beautiful about the “single high-rise”, or the “little downtown” of some American towns. We all know that. So did Edward Hopper
Hopper’s empty downtown was created by the Depression, in 1930. Today we have downtowns from that era which have just never been gentrified. They might contain an outdated pharmacy, a bail bonds, a 99 cent store. Here on the East Coast the forgotten downtowns turn into ghetto or they turn Hispanic. I don’t know what they become in other places, like the midwest or the south.
There are also downtowns which were abandoned a second time – gentrified in the 1990’s and made into “designer Main St.” with coffee shops and sports stores and trendy stores, only to be abandoned again because now people want to buy cheaper clothing at TJ Maxx and the pull to Target and Walmart is just too strong.
I won’t say I like downtowns best when they are in decay. I don’t really like them best when they are totally gentrified either. But it’s the empty old downtowns are the ones that I enjoy photographing and looking at the most, and decay just seems to be their destiny.
Today I went to the Newark Museum. My intention was to see my favorite painting by Edward Hopper. It is “The Sheridan Theater”:
As with all paintings by Hopper, I love this for its loneliness, nostalgia and carpeted plushness. It generates a lot of emotion and raises a lot of questions for me. Didn’t everyone live amongst cocktails in silver glasses, velvet drapes, plush carpet, sleek, sreamlined furniture, and satin lounging gowns then? A Roxy Music-like lifestyle perfection must have settled over all of life during the 1930’s
I took the NJ Transit Northeast Corridor line up to Newark Penn Station. Usually, I then take the light rail to Washington Park, but this time I decided to walk. I guess Broad Street used to be a busy center. Most everything is boarded up now, or just little remnants of life.
Washington Park is usually the same – just a handful of drunks standing around. Not this time! The park was full of people and most of the Firemen were drinking Miller Genuine Draft. It was a pretty nice looking picnic,
with just a few drunks, like this guy:
Newark is not a popular place. It is not Atlantic City. It’s poor, but it’s not the loud, sleazy 1970’s Times Square of the New York Dolls or Warhol. Newark is just empty. There are apartments over the storefronts, just as there are in New York.
In 1970’s New York, we knew that drug addicts and prostitutes lived in those storefront apartments. Today, in “cleaned up” New York, we know that bright young designers and brokers have moved in. In New York, you always know what’s going on. But in Newark we don’t really know for sure what is going on, and who lives in those apartments? And what they are doing? Maybe they are sitting there, all day long, above some abandoned shop, dust collecting on the windows. The feeling of apartment dwelling is a feeling of lowness and loneliness, like listening to “The Tenant” or “Obscure Alternatives” by Japan or Bowie’s “Low”, or an Edward Hopper apartment scene:
In Newark you see back alleys with half-torn down department stores that are left to decay.
There are no-name boutiques on main street, dusty, dated looking mannequins greeting the passers-by, wearing tacky sequined party dresses that nobody would wear to today’s, or tomorrow’s parties. There are stores that advertise “lingerie and girdles”. Inside you find pink nylon pajamas and slips. Who buys this stuff? Maybe they get visitors from 1965 who creep down from the fire escapes of the Hahne and Company Dept. store, at night. These zombie housewives buy the girdles and then creep back into their abandoned stores and buildings by day to disguise themselves once again as mannequins.
This is a diner in Newark that I love to visit. It is always open, and you can sit at the counter and have a sandwich for about $5. Today I sat at the counter and drank my tea while white layer cake with thick coconut icing languished under a glass dome. I listened to the waitress crack jokes with the Mexican dishwashers about how she didn’t speak Spanish. They told her about some guy who didn’t speak a word of English. In fact he didn’t speak Spanish either. He just didn’t speak. They all thought that was very funny. It’s the kind of place where you can just sit and just not speak.
Well, now that I’m a recent single mom, I’m trying to find a house to sink my money into, lest I be tempted to spend it. I almost bought a cute little house in Highland Park. However, $600 and two inspections later, I decided not to.
Here are the things that my general inspector found. These are relatively easy-to-spot things and might help someone:
1. termite tubes
2 no drain pipes or rain gutters
3. grading sloping toward house which means that water collected and poured into basement during rain
4 wide horizontal cracks on inner foundation
5 missing major large beam that should run length of house
6 asbestos insulation all over the basement
7 an old fuse box (should have breaker panels, 100-150 amp)
8 if there is water damage on ceiling, is it wet?
9 look under kitchen sink to see if the pipe is rusting/dripping
Believe it or not, all of these things were the matter with my house, and STILL I wanted it. Silly me! Then the structural engineer looked at it and told me that it had “major structural issues” and was in a fact, a “money pit”. So I immediately called off the deal.
What I love in a house:
several stories, large trees, porches, old charming details, metal siding because you don’t have to maintain it.
What I do not love:
anonymous ranch style houses, lots with no trees, wood panelling.
Yesterday I took a train ride to Philadelphia, alone. This was something I’d been wanting to do for a long time, to see the Mutter Museum, a famous collection of freaks and medical oddities located at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Since the kids were at my husband’s house for the weekend, the time was at hand. So next thing I knew, I was on a perfect train ride, gloomy day, large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand, The Cure on the mp3 player, staring wistfully out the window and taking videos of nondescript trees flicking poetically by, and random photos of the most abandoned, decayed industrial tri-state landscapes I could see. I swear that “17 Seconds” was made for looking out the window of a train on gloomy days.
I have a larger than usual appetite for strange and unknown landscapes. I love weird dramatic places, gloomy oceans or deserts. I loved the Navajo reservation in Arizona, Utah, with it’s thunderstorms, dark purple skies and jagged cliffs. Times Square is nice, but it’s been in too many postcards. Please don’t drag me to a tropical island with the requisite palm tree and azure sea. Yawn.
Lately, I have been obsessed with abandoned and dilapidated buildings and industrial surroundings. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the scenery of Northern Philadelphia. Wow. It is made of miles and miles of strange narrow little row houses. Each “house” is just an individually colored slice of a large building covering many blocks. Each unit is very narrow, giving the entire building an organic formless look where a variety of designs and colors extend out over a common facade. I wonder if these houses were all built at the same time or over longer periods?
A native Californian, the first time I saw row houses was in San Francisco, the stereotypical rows that you see in every postcard. I thought they were cute and fell in love with the city that seemed so different from the sprawl I was used to. Row houses always reminded me of the early 20th century, something out of Steinbeck or Edward Hopper, the early urbanization of America, street cars and produce stands and porches, etc. Everybody is living close together and everything is just right out there on the street. You aren’t hidden in a row house, as you are in an anonymous high-rise apartment or a spread out suburb.
I guess it’s not so surprising that my life has ended up in a row house. I travelled the upwardly mobile path from cheap college apartment (but oh, what a college place – a beautiful brick courtyard walk-up in Hyde Park, Chicago), to a concrete 1970’s “ejerlejlighed ” (condo) in Denmark, to large suburban house with my husband and family in New Jersey – 4 floors, 2.5 baths, a huge backyard, patio, swing set, but alas no porch and never a neighbor to be seen. All was calm and stillness in the suburbs. When I separated from my husband and that big place I moved into a row house.
So here I am, in my first floor apartment in my little row house. It’s a luxury row – detached. Each little pitched roof house has a three foot sidewalk going to the backyard. I’ve got a porch where I sometimes sit drinking tea or drawing pictures of the row houses across the street. There are neighbors all around and they all sit on their porches too. The kids say hi when they ride by on their scooters. You can hear music. Tonight I saw a young couple kissing on the porch across the street. The families are mostly from Oaxaca. There are also college students. Nobody is rich, but I guess people in row houses rarely are. But this row house in perfect for me right now. It’s going to be hard to leave.
Staying at a hotel on Hollywood Blvd. the past two nights. Ten years ago I never would have dreamed of that. But now everything here is cleaned out, bright and shiny for young decent people with decent intentions. It is sanitized. So a hotel on Hollywood Blvd. caters to young tourists now instead of prostitutes and weirdos.
I’ve been driving along Memory Blvd. for the past 3 days. Hollywood Blvd., accompanied by a soundtrack of my years in Hollywood – 1988-92 approximately: X, Jeffrey Lee Peirce, more X, and New Order (this is the soundtrack of what I was listening to then). I’ve been trying to recreate my own personal L.A. and I must say it’s hard, in a city that continually erases and redraws itself. However, unlike Tokyo, the L.A. architecture is mostly left alone
Friday night we went to the Dresden, a beautiful old restaurant from the 1960s, from the rat pack and Vegas era. The Dresden is not much to look at from the outside, competing with bright trendy Thai restaurants and sushi and cuban, etc. But inside the Dresden you find a sea of creamy white naugahyde booths and huge custom made white chairs, skinny wood beams spiraling up to the ceiling like strange modern DNA chains and modern glittering chandeliers. It is not 90’s wannabe James Bond 60’s modern. It is the real thing, and it must be seen to be believed.
On Saturday we got back on Memory Blvd. (aka Hollywood Blvd) and went to Denny’s at Hollywood and Van Ness. Back in the Guns N Roses era we called this “rock n roll Denny’s”. Anything east of Highland Blvd was prefixed with “rock n roll” hence “rock n roll Ralph’s”, etc. Does anyone remember this? The waitress didn’t. The old sunken cocktail lounge has been made into a bright room full of booths. That was the only Denny’s I knew of where you could get a martini with that Grand Slam, but no longer.
Then on to Melrose. Nothing much left there from the days it was filled with rockabilly, glam and punk kids. Cowboys and Poodles, Flip of Hollywood, Vinyl Fetish, Aron’s Records, even Lip Service is gone. But one place still stands – AAArdvarks Odd Ark. It was good to be in this jam-packed vintage clothing store, and they still had some 1950’s dresses even if most cost upwards of $40. I guess AAArdvark’s is moving soon. Melrose will officially become just a collection of small unrelated designer clothing stores, instead of the nexus of a shared subculture.
Next we went to Amoeba Records at Cahuenga and Sunset Blvd. Supposedly Amoeba is responsible for the closing of most L.A. record stores, such as Aron’s (where I used to work) or the Virgin Megastore, and even Tower on Sunset. Man what a place is Amoeba! It is a like a huge arena of new and used CD’s and vinyl in every genre, rock, lounge, rap, soul, ska, reggae, classical, and on and on. There is a huge separate room for jazz, the techno section spans about 5 racks. There is a separate rap wing. There is a small bin just for old Northern Soul 45’s. There are cases with funny rock collectibles and all over posters line the walls. Frank Gehry? Rock Museum? Seattle? I would prefer a walk through Amoeba instead of any officially sanctioned rock museum.
Then we went for a few boring hours to the Autry Center in Griffith Park. I like “Back in the Saddle” and other songs of the singing cowboy fine, but the stately new building and wordy exhibitions were a bit boring. Sorry.
We drove a bit around Silverlake. Fun to listen to Jeffrey Lee Peirce sing Hey Juana as we drove down Glendale Blvd. In fact the soundtrack seemed perfectly coordinated to our driving as “The Fertility Goddess” was playing as we drove into a pagoda-like strip mall of Thai Restaurants in Thai Town for dinner. RCA (red corner asia) has yummy thai food!
We finished the day by seeing “Sweeney Todd” at the Vista in Silverlake. The Vista is a beautiful old unchanged movie palace with red velvet curtains and Egyptian Goddesses adorning the wall sconces. Sweeney Todd was all right. Starring Johnny Depp it is the story of a razor wielding London hairdresser who collaborates with a neighboring pie maker to obtain meat for the pies and revenge for the loss of his wife and child. It is loosely based on a true story from medieval Paris. The plot was ok but I was a bit bored with the surreal darkness of Tim Burton’s sets. Too apocalyptic, too Goth, too Matrix, as everything is these days.
So we had some fun. I think I’ve seen enough of Hollywood now and I’m ready to go on. My youth is gone and no one remembers it but me and this blog.
Well, we got back from Martha’s Vineyard yesterday. In 6 hours we drove through 5 states – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and, you guessed it, New Jersey. I wonder how many others we could have squeezed in there in a comfortable day drive? Pennsylvania certainly, but New Hampshire? This is all very impressive to Californian me who’s used to driving all day and only making it as far as Barstow or Pismo Beach.
As for the Vineyard, or “MV” as the bumper stickers say, it’s a laid back beach town, not quite as laid back as a California beach town, less off-beach-bikinis and skateboards and more collared shirts, but pretty nice and charming. The beaches were great – nice soft sand, no waves, easy to just drift along in the water. There’s foresty nature, beautiful old wooden houses with big porches, and lots of yummy lobster. There were bike trails and not too many hills, on the other hand, way too many people were driving, and most were driving SUV’s. Why was this? Do people not want to feel the wind and smell the tress and move their bodies, even on vacation? I thought New Englanders were supposed to be progressive. So what’s with sitting still in all the big gas guzzlers?
On the way back we stopped for dinner in Norwalk, CT, where, my husband corrected me, was not the location of Yale.
But we wanted to see a real town instead of just a roadside Applebees, and I was curious about the East Coast namesake of the trashy So. California suburb east of Long Beach. Downtown Norwalk, CT, is no less a dump than Norwalk, CA. However, being an East Coast dump it was so much more interesting. The houses were all big and old and dilapidated and haunted-looking. The Main Street (Wall Street) was full of empty brick buildings, punctuated every now and then by the occasional functioning storefront, such as the delightful Mexican restaurant were we ate, the large tattoo parlor next door, or the pawn shop and bail bonds across the street, but also a holistic health store and an outdoor cafe. It was Main Street’s last stand.
Norwalk, CA on the other hand, was developed in the 50s with driving in mind. It is all 2 bedroom ranch houses, strip malls with “99 cents only” stores, all-you-can-eat Chinese, gas stations, liquor stores, and a casino, all spaced nice and wide so you can drive your car leisurely away from the last egg roll and have time to light a cigarette on the way to the gas station and then on to anesthetize that MSG headache with a pint of Smirnoff.
Norwalk, CT has not catered so thoroughly to the car culture yet. The old brick apartment buildings are 6 stores and close together. One can imagine a time in the 1920’s when it may have aspired to be New York. But Wall St., Norwalk never made it. And now the infrastructure is beginning to crumble. You can walk along the river and see the old iron gate, gaps patched with a ladder or ropes or tape, or old lawn chairs, rusting contentedly under its blue paint as the mayor pulls his hair out. There are black iron fire escapes on the side of most buildings. There is a large industrial plant or mill or some sort a few blocks away. Did it close? Did everyone leave? The place invites questions, and photographs.
Norwalk, CA isn’t so photogenic – yet, but someday it will be. Someday soon the California Blvds and drive-through and strip malls will be as historical and interesting as the huge brick and concrete bridges that span the Midwestern and East Coast rivers – but for now it’s just sprawl.
As for Martha’s Vineyard, it’s lovely. But you knew that already. As for me I’d like to spend a couple more days in Norwalk, CT photographing that old factory.
This is one of my favorite places in Earth, or at least in the 20e arrondissement of Paris. I know Pere LeChaise is reviewed everywhere. I just wanted to have it on my site because thinking about the place makes me happy. I love cemeteries, not because I am goth, but because they are such beautiful places to stroll and full of memories and reminders of our mortality. That said, this place has everyone. We all know that Jim Morrison is buried here. But so are Chopin, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Delacroix, Colette. Heloise and Abelard, ill-fated ecclesiastical lovers of the 12th century are also here at long last. The cemetery is huge and full of little streets, like a city of the dead. There are amazing statues, carvings, and memento mori everywhere you look, all intricately carved and sculpted in true Catholic fashion. You need several days to see the whole thing, and after you do, you’ll never want to go to Disneyland again. Salut.
I have seen two tenements in the past two weeks, which is more than I usually see. There was a huge difference between the two, which, as usual, I will try to interpret from my typical bourgeois Marxist perspective. First, last week, we took a trip to the Tenement Museum in New York. This is the site of a formerly low-income apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where, for $15, you could take a 45 minute tour. Once inside, if you are lucky enough to have come without children (the Tenement Museum is extremely delicate and stroller-unfriendly. The walls may not be touched, for example), you find yourself in a decrepit, rotting building with layers of peeling paint and wallpaper, and the former inhabitants’ belongings, which resemble bad shabby-chic antiques. You stand in 3 rooms and hear about the poor worker-immigrant families who lived there.
It is sad to hear the squalid stories, but mostly it is interesting, and dare I say, cozy. Cozy? Yes. The Tenement Museum is a place where you can have a cozy intellectual and historical experience of poverty. You are in standing in the site of human misery, but are 100 years removed from it. There is no danger of being thrown into a vat of hot oil, or riding a dangerous elevator, or freezing or anything. In fact, apartments in the identical “tenement” next door are going for $4 million dollars, and there are “gourmet yarn” and handmade craft shops down the street, for upscale garment workers, presumably. It is so cozy, in fact, that they are planning a pub for the basement of the Tenement Museum, where rich New Yorkers can go and drink microbrew and soak up the tenement atmosphere at their leisure.
I saw the other “tenement” tonight when I went to look at a used futon couch that I am considering buying. This tenement was a modern-day version, the “Blueberry Court” apartments in Edison, NJ. Blueberry Court apartments are one of the most lackluster residences I have ever seen. It is joined to other complexes of crowded, ugly apartments with perversely inappropriate names like “Edison Manor”, etc. Here the streets were badly lit. There were no green spaces, just large parking lots. Many apartments were crammed together and materials looked cheap – wood panels and composite siding. I saw mainly Indian families walking in groups, some with strollers and little children, dodging the heavy traffic despite the dark sidewalks.
Large old cities like New York, London share a similar design concept which was looked down upon at one time, but which is now extremely valuable and desirable – urban density. Someone designed these cities with some thought. Though I’ve seen Jakob Riis photos of flimsey wooden shacks, most builders managed to scrape enough together to build many apartment buildings of brick or stone. But even putting aside the cost of building materials (which were probably skimped on back then too), the older tenement neighborhoods featured something that seems to have been lost – planning and public transportation. Someone thought out the need for walking streets and planned for parks and green spaces. The greatest luxury of older urban areas was of course public transportation, the subways and buses which linked neighborhoods and cities and seems to have become permanently unaffordable for today’s American cities. Shame.
On the other hand, places like “Blueberry Court” or “Edison Manor” can be described as “sprawl”. Streets are windy and impossible to find one’s way around. Buildings are flimsy and look as if they were the result of contractor graft. Huge parking lots stretch endlessly. The car is the only way to get around, because nobody wants to walk through an endless parking lot. Sprawl is the symbol of the energy-greedy, myopic world we live in – no planning, no green space, no foot traffic, no human contact.
We hate sprawl. But they hated tenements and cites 100 years ago, and now we think it’s great. So, in 100 years, our sprawl ought to look pretty good. The scary thing to ask is, compared to what?